The feast of St. Michel
Blessed (finally) are they who live to eat
In the glittering gilt salons of Versailles, it was not unusual for Louis XIV to summon his court to gaze upon the evening’s entertainment-watching him wolf down an entire pheasant, a partridge, a mutton, two ham shanks, a salad and a tray of cakes with jam at a single sitting. Carrying on the family penchant, if not exactly the family business, Louis XVI calmly sat down to lunch on six cutlets and one large chicken washed down by two glasses of white wine before keeping his appointed rendezvous with the guillotine. Balzac is reported to have consumed 100 oysters, 12 lamb cutlets, a duck with turnips, a pair of roast partridges and sole à la normande during the course of one dinner, inspired by the simple knowledge that his editor was paying. Given the fact that the French have never been known for abstemiousness when it comes to affairs of the stomach, it is possible for a newcomer to the country to feel positively ascetic. After all, in the grander cosmos of gourmandise, what is a mere six months spent dallying with the plump succulence of Maxim’s grape-studded quail or swooning over the sheer opulence of Paul Bocuse’s celebrated soup oozing puff pastry and truffles?
Still, the Sun King expired of gout and an overtaxed intestine.
Balzac’s pot belly has been immortalized au naturel in bronze for all posterity by the merciless hand of Rodin. As every seasoned sybarite knows, the wages of ecstasy must ultimately come knocking. Having dedicated myself to searching out the precise table in the heart of Burgundy where the crayfish mousse approaches celestial promise, having cruised the valley of the Loire awash in pheasant paté laced with pistachios and drifted through Bordeaux in a delirium of French oysters and foie gras, I was faced with an entirely different geographical problem: I could no longer pinpoint the exact location of my waistline.
It was there to be sure, somewhere beneath the accumulated testimony to my culinary education and I longed to remake its acquaintance. I tried yoga, but even upside-down one cannot avoid confronting the truths of the all-too-mortal flesh. Friends charitably suggested exercise, but I am of the persuasion that is always relieved to discover that one’s running shoes are out of the country.
The thought of fasting was unpalatable, and dieting—well, a diet might have been more feasible in a nation where the entire society did not grind to a halt each day for a three-hour lunch. But at last there emerged a solution to delight the heart of any unrepentant overindulger, a regimen beyond the wildest imaginings of the dedicated hedonist, a prospect indeed which could only have been invented in the land of the Grande Bouffe itself: to eat my way to thinness in the confines of a three-star gourmet spa.
To carve off calories while supping on
blanquette de veau and tenderest eggs adrift in caviar. To slough off pounds while savoring filleted breast of duckling drenched in a sauce of pungent green peppercorns and chocolate mousse. All this, combined with nothing more rigorous than reclining daily in a pool of 80-degree spring water reputed to have magical qualities, was the promise of Eugénie-lesbains, a hamlet in southwestern France which has burgeoned into the continent’s chicest watering place, where the beautiful and would-be beautiful people have taken to converging for a sample of the wizardry , of chef Michel Guérard and what he calls
his slimming cooking in the grand style— La Grande Cuisine Minceur.
Despite his mere five feet, six inches, Guérard is regarded as the giant of the hour in French cookery—a chef who was the toast of Paris with his absurdly tiny Pot au Feu restaurant on the unfashionable fringes of town. In the heady days of the last decade when the world’s gastronomical capital was still reeling from a new wave of radical young chefs proclaiming what they called a lighter, rule-shattering nouvelle cuisine, he was in their vanguard. Three years ago, he moved south to Eugénie-les-bains, a decrepit thermal station in France’s poetic rolling Landes region just north of the foothills of the Pyrénées, and went one step further. Breaking what the late legendary chef Fernand Point had once decreed as the cardinal rule of classic French cooking: “Butter, and then again more butter.” Not only did Guérard dispense with butter, but he threw out most of the other commandments as well. With all the instincts of a chemist and the devotion of an unswerving gourmand, he devised duplications of the greatest dishes of haute cuisine which barely grazed a calorie chart, miraculous creamy white béchamels that boasted not so much as a brush with cream, rich mysterious dark brown sauces that bore not a trace of flour or fat.
France’s dyed-in-the-flesh gastronomes who got word of his experiments were aghast at the heresy. They branded him a dilettante, a charlatan and some things not so polite. But the critics of French cuisine who ventured to his table came away rapturous— not to mention thinner. Julia Child, who had turned a jaundiced eye upon the nouvelle cuisine, hailed him as the first for epochs to create something truly original in cooking. James Beard dubbed him unequivocably “number one in France.” The New York Times has celebrated him as the “chef of the Seventies, perhaps the century,” and there is no doubt that, beyond the bounds of diet cooking, Michel Guérard is currently the world’s most imitated chef.
At a time when the topic of dieting can keep a conversation going for three days, he raised the subject to respectability, if not grandeur. In a hedonistic age that has suddenly taken to blushing at its excesses, he devised a formula to indulge with a sense of righteous impunity. In a relentlessly consumer society, which spends more on the means to lose weight than it does on food itself, he has reached a kind of apotheosis of the 20th century. If a handful of diehards still decry la cuisine minceur as a passing whim and an insult to the memory of Escoffier, they are now doing so increasingly sotto voce for this spring the bible of true gastronomy, the Michelin Guide, bestowed its blessing upon Michel Guérard’s kitchen with a
third and ultimate star.
The approach to Eugénie-les-bains is nothing if not encouraging. Driving south 80 miles from Bordeaux, the car meanders through France’s green wooded Bear, home of béarnaise sauce, and takes a sharp turn westward at the lazy town of Aire-surl’Adour which proclaims itself the “capital of foie gras.” Then suddenly two massive white stone gates loom at the end of a
winding country road to leave no doubt that it was here in the heart of all that has come to symbolize gourmandise that cuisine minceur was born. On the stucco posts Michel Guérard’s name is scrawled in yard-high letters and down an alley of plantain trees the graceful white château called Les Prés et Les Sources d’Eugénie (the meadows and springs of Eugénie) beckons with the air of a seasoned shrine.
It was here in 1861 that France’s last empress, the striking dark-eyed Eugénie, first came to participate in that ancient rite of taking the waters, luxuriating in the baths of the three hot natural calciosulphurous springs that gush out of the site. Giddy with her presence, the tiny village which grew up around the baths enjoyed a brief fling as a fashionable spa. By the time a canny French advertising and cosmetic tycoon named Adrien Barthélémy bought it, along with a handful of other abandoned thermal stations, and handed it over to his 23-year-old second daughter, Christine, it was a crumbling ruin. The Empress Château was barely habitable, the grounds were a testimonial to nature run amok and the clientele consisted of five ancient faithful who could barely wheeze their way back and forth to the baths.
Now, 10 years later, Isabelle Adjani, Joan Kennedy, Yul Brynner and Princess Paula of Belgium make the pilgrimage to its palm-fringed doorstep. In the village of 150, the locals have taken to yawning at the traffic jams of Jaguars and Mercedes disgorging Bordeaux tycoons and TV stars— although there was more than one raised eyebrow when the Princess Doria of Italy drove up in a Maserati with her prize albino greyhound Jimmy in his own chauffeur-driven limousine right behind.
A breezy verandah a-bloom with hydrangeas links three wings of the most sumptuous accommodation this side of nirvana, ranging from $140-a-day deluxe down to $70-a-day first class, minceur meals included. Inside, antiques, wicker and greenery mingle in a casual riot of elegance. Every window opens onto yet a more tranquil pastoral vista—here, an oak-
shaded lily pond, there a swimming pool set in a garden scattered with weeping willow and daisies. All of it is the artful orchestration of Christine Barthélémy, a shy classic beauty who floats through the rooms trailing clouds of Shalimar, a rain of long chestnut hair and, despite a degree in business management, an unmistakable aura of the belle époque. Almost singlehandedly she has resuscitated Eugénie-lesbains, redecorating its decaying walls, restoring its faded reputation and finally snaring the coup that has assured it international renown—Michel Guérard himself. Her secret for luring Paris’ most lionized chef down to an obscure corner of the
Landes was, in the end, a simple one: she married him.
Bent over a massive baroque dining table in his study scribbling out the secrets of sublime puff pastry, he looks more like some kitchen boy strayed in from potato peeling than the current king of French haute cuisine. His small furrowed brow takes on an exaggerated comic turn, even in moments of intense concentration. His tiny compact frame clad in jeans and a Tshirt trumpeting dada cuisine could pass for a decade younger than his 44 years and betrays only a hint of the vocation that has sprung from a lifelong romance. Michel Guérard searches for the words but finally,
with a Gallic shrug, settles for the simplest way to put it: “I just love to eat,” he says.
His earliest memories are of food, propped up at age three in front of his grandmother’s blazing kitchen fireplace, plump stuffed baked potatoes sizzling among the coals and on the table, beckoning, a glistening fresh cherry tart. His father wanted him to follow in the family tradition, but he shrank from the brutality of the butcher’s block and dreamed of wearing an archbishop’s mitre, playing drums in a jazz band or stalking the theatrical boards—anything to feed his growing taste for the spectacular. Instead, at 16, he followed his well-honed palate and settled for an apprenticeship to a caterer in the suburbs of Paris, persuaded by his father that it was one vocation where his stomach would at least be nourished.
Under the watchful eye of a tyrannical eccentric, he learned the skills that were to stand him in good stead, from forming silky pâtés and feathery puff pastry to pickling frogs’ legs and, under cover of darkness, distilling his own contrabrand brandy. By the time he was drafted into the national marines, the officer’s club for which he cooked so esteemed his culinary talents that they saw to it that his entire military service scarcely produced a brush with the military life. He passed it ensconced in libraries, poring over the classic tomes of French cuisine from the first 14thcentury cookbook of Taillevent, who used stale bread to thicken his gravies, on down to the dictums of La Varenne, who, even in the heyday of Louis XIV, created the bases for sauces as we know them today. He soaked up Brillat-Savarin with his vulgar menu extravaganzas, digested all five volumes of Antoine Carême’s art of 19th-century cuisine with its codification of 200 sauces that remain the staple and glory of French cookery, and immersed himself in Georges-Auguste Escoffier’s Guide culinaire with its 2,973 classic recipes first set down in 1921 and still regarded in the world of cooking as something akin to The Book of Moses. When Michel Guérard closed the last page, he realized for the first
time “that we were in a static world. Nothing had changed since Escoffier. One was supposed to do things only one way. Why not another, I thought?”
Restless with the itch for innovation, he did stints in France’s most illustrious kitchens—winning a medal as the country’s best pastry chef in 1958 when he presided over the prestigious ovens of the Hôtel Crillon; then moving on to Maxim’s and the Lido where he concocted lavish fantasies in pâte à choux for the owner’s private banquets. In 1965, he finally decided that the time was ripe, and so was he. With a bank loan in his pocket and the horrified cries of friends ringing in his ear, he rented the only space he could afford and opened his own restaurant in a grimy abandoned Arab café in Paris’ seedy working-class suburb of Asnières.
The entire place was so small that it held only 26 chairs. Lunch guests had to clamber over workers from the neighboring rivet factory, and dinner guests ran the risk of finding theirlate-night sidewalk laughter squelched by a cold bucket of water courtesy of the tenement upstairs. It was cramped, uncomfortable and beyond the definition of merely unfashionable—and within a year the crème de la crème of Paris was negotiating its way down the sinister back streets of Asnières to his Pot au Feu.
Giscard came and so too did Teddy Kennedy and the Baroness Rothschild, not infrequently standing in line at the primitive back-door bar for as long as an hour, while lesser mortals had to book six weeks in advance. Within two years, Michelin had awarded him his first star and the jet set had paid him their highest tribute: Régine, Paris nightclub queen, asked him to take charge of her two discothèque kitchens, and later a third in New York, firmly establishing him as chef to the chic.
The most lavish compliment though came from his confrères of the kitchen who were fighting the battle of the nouvelle cuisine, the young turks of the toque led by Paul Bocuse of Lyon and the Troisgros brothers of Rouen who voyaged out to Asnières to laud his culinary inventions. Where once the chefs of haute cuisine guarded their secrets unto death and competed with a vigor usually reserved for nations under siege, this new breed swapped recipes and even took to serving each other’s specialties with full credits on the menu. They bolstered each other in the hard times and took holidays together in the good. When the old guard of gastronomes attacked their forays into a lighter, less rigidly formal cookery, Michel Guérard sent Paul Bocuse a hand-drawn card
with a saint’s quotation: “They band together because they are persecuted.” When Bocuse was awarded France’s Légion d’honneur, the entire contingent cooked up a storm in their kitchens scattered over France and made a gala of it by inviting Giscard to lunch with them at the Elysée.
“We’re a different spirit, this new generation,” says Guérard. “Almost like a mafia. We give our recipes away because it forces us to invent further and not grow old too young. Instead of cooking a lobster three days before and decorating it in truffles and aspic to sit in some refrigerator, ours is a cuisine where everything is done at the last minute with the freshest ingredients. In the old days, to have a very white turbot one poached it in milk, which I think is abominable. Why cook a salt water fish in milk just to have it a nice color? The old chefs used to cook a steak, reheat it at the table in a flambé of cognacs with flames shooting all around to create a great drama that resembled a priest’s imprecation more than it did cooking. It’s false, and, besides, why ruin a good steak by overcooking it like that? Now, when I see a maître d’hôtel do that I’m tempted to pour the cognac over him and light a match. If that was grande cuisine, I hope it’s dead.”
Certainly by late 1973 the culinary pomp and circumstance seemed to be flagging. The nouveaux cuisiniers with their cookbooks and twice-weekly TV spots were affecting a renaissance in French cooking, and Guérard was in their forefront. One night his fellow chef and friend Pierre Troisgros brought a dark gentle beauty named Christine Barthélémy into his kitchens at Régine’s to talk to him about taking on one of her cooks from Eugénieles-bains as an apprentice. Instead, they talked art and philosophy till 5 a.m. and two people who had each privately determined never to marry found themselves exchanging wedding vows in her family chapel not far from the Spanish border. The nuptial supper was catered by Paul Bocuse and some of the most celebrated names in French cookery who each came bearing a dish.
It was then that Guérard was informed the Pot au Feu would be demolished to make way for an urban renewal project and his private universe tumbled like a limp soufflé. He sought out other Paris locations, but each time the landlord learned his prospective tenant’s identity, the prices soared.He negotiated to buy Maxim’s, an exercise in humiliation. Always mercurial, he plunged into depression. At the nadir of his gloom, Christine gently suggested he come to take the waters of Eugénie-lesbains. There, as he began to mellow amid the trees and flowers, she also gently suggested that he might look a trifle more handsome with less weight.
For a man who had devoted his life to the greater glories of butter and cream, the prospect of dieting was sheer anguish. Michel Guérard looked around in horror at his fellow curistes dining on grated carrots and grapefruit sections and went straight
to Eugénie’s kitchen. “There had to be some way to make diet cooking attractive,” he said. Cuisine minceur sprang directly from its creator’s waistline.
The breakfast tray arrives with a feathered chorus from the branches outside my shutters. The dawn’s early light, however, reveals that its principal ingredient seems to be the placement which perfectly matches the green flowered sheets I languish upon staring at its contents. Sprigs of fresh green leaves and fine white china fail to camouflage the fact that all I have been served is one cup of steaming Chinese tea, a heart-shaped bowl of defatted cottage cheese studded with one brilliant red strawberry and a glass of clear hot liquid with a sulphur twang.
It turns out to be the first of endless acquaintances with the fabled thermal waters of Eugénie-les-bains which claim to benefit everything from arthritis and liver dysfunction to the unpleasantness of being plump. Over the course of the next week, I will submerge my shattered flesh in steaming sunken mosaic tubs of the stuff and paddle in warm pools of it, performing baby-simple underwater calisthenics to the commands of a gym instructor while sprays run up and down my spine.
Not everyone at Eugénie-les-bains arrives to do penance. At least half the dining room on any given day is occupied by unrelenting gastronomes come to sample the carte gourmande of France’s eighteenth
and newest three-star restaurant. In the baroque chocolate dining room, they mingle amiably, gourmets lingering blissfully over the seductions of the menu and sipping on Bordeaux, while weary 20th-century warriors must content themselves with printed cards announcing what Michel Guérard deems proper for their digestive tract that day and downing herbal tea gussied up to look like some exotic tropical cocktail. Alcohol is strictly forbidden for curistes and my plaintive attempts to secure a glass of white wine were met with a brisk “tsk, tsk,” from a waiter barely half my age. “Well tell M. Guérard on you,” he said.
Still, the presence of forbidden delights within one’s range of vision can try even the most ardent. On my first day at Eugénie, my companion tucked away puff pastries bursting with sweetbreads and cream, truffled chicken breasts and a feathery pear soufflé with indecent gusto, while I was left facing three grilled rock bass, a spinach purée and a certain truth about myself. To some women the four magic words in life are, “Will you marry me?” to others, “A little more sauce?” The second day things did not improve a great deal when I awoke to the news that it was Sunday, a “day of health” and there would be only bouillon for lunch. “Bouillon?” I inquired. “And for dinner?” “More bouillon,” replied the maître d’.
In his hours of experimenting in Eugénie’s kitchens, Guérard had come up with the secrets of cream sauces made from vegetables run through a blender and a selection of solutions on how to defat meat. He had replaced salt with the pungence of fresh herbs and green peppercorns, done away with the seduction of the heaping portion in favor of oversized plates laid out with traceries of tiny carved carrots and fresh mint leaves, each one an exquisite work of art unveiled under a sterling silver cloche. A typical meal added up to 410 calories which dazzled the eye and pleased the palate, and issued in a crude new era of cooking.
If at first all his inventions didn’t succeed, he would wallow in days of despair— “black holes when I can’t do anything and think I’ll never invent another dish”—for every one that floundered came four successes until he had a repertoire that he dared unleash on the world. When France’s new-wave gastronomic guru Christian Millau journeyed to Eugénieles-bains, he came away kilos lighter and a convert to the joys of this cuisine which brought out food’s flavor, instead of making it . . . and cuisine minceur was safely launched into its place in history.
Now, as apostles on both sides of the Atlantic dip liberally into the published secrets of Guérard’s zero-calorie sauces and lard their menus with his trademark steamed seafood and crunchy greens, he has just finished his second cookbook, due on the market at Christmas, which will reveal his mysterious ways with the calorie rites of his three-star gourmand cuisine. Breaking with the hallowed haute cuisine rituals of beef and chicken stocks made from the bone up, he dares to suggest that the glories of classic French cooking can be duplicated by the instant bouillon cube. It is certain to cause yet another uproar in the professional kitchens of the world, not least of all from a quarter that bitterly wounds him. His once loyal comrade Paul Bocuse has lately taken to belittling cuisine minceur in public and the band of nouveaux cuisiniers, once so intrepid in the face of adversity, is now rent with dissension as fame and fortune settle in, leaving a bitter aftertaste of sour grapes in the air.
Still, as Guérard himself says, “Cuisine minceur was never meant to replace grande cuisine. It’s something you do for a week once or twice a year to keep yourself in shape.” I, for one, have never heard better news. At the end of a week, having lost eight pounds and feeling decidedly sleeker, virtue has been overcome by a certain natural proclivity. I fondle Guérard’s gourmand menu for the prize of one last supper. Down the verandah, James Beard has just settled in and is pondering the same profundities. He says he will try cuisine minceur soon, in fact any day now, but first there are foie gras and truffles beckoning, pastry oozing real butter and sauces awash in real cream ... “Happy calories,” he calls out.1^